Pominville nets OT winner, but Caps clinch Southeast

WASHINGTON (AP) — A year ago, at the culmination of a long trek
up the standings, the Washington Capitals reveled when they
finished atop the Southeast Division by winning their 82nd game,
hugging and jumping and yelling with delight.

There was no such celebration to mark their second consecutive
title. No, this time, Washington’s players quietly shuffled off
to the locker room, some with heads bowed, after clinching the
division despite losing to the Buffalo Sabres, 5-4, in overtime
Friday night.

Maybe it’s tough to get too excited after any defeat.

Maybe it’s the way Washington lost, blowing three leads.

And maybe it’s because these Capitals, led by Alex Ovechkin,
have bigger things in mind.

“Before the season started, we said we were going to win, and we
have one goal in mind,” coach Bruce Boudreau said, “and we
aren’t there yet.”

Which is why his players weren’t nearly as excited as the
sellout crowd of 18,277 was at the end of regulation, when the
tied score meant Washington had earned at least one standings
point. That was enough to give the Capitals a nine-point
cushion ahead of second-place Carolina, which has four games

“You know what? It’s an accomplishment, but it’s an
accomplishment we thought was going to happen,” Boudreau said.
“I mean, let’s face it, Carolina would have to win 12 in a row
and we’d have to lose all of our games. It would be a
monumental collapse.”

So the fans rose and applauded as “Washington Capitals,
2008-2009 Southeast Division Champions” was displayed on the
above-ice video board and U2’s “Beautiful Day” blared over the
arena loudspeakers.

But the players drank water or caught their breath by leaning
against the boards.

And then they went out and were beaten 1:51 into the extra
session, when Sergei Fedorov – who scored two goals in the
second period – turned over the puck, leading to Jason
Pominville’s breakaway goal.

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“We’ve got to get smarter to be able to play better,” Boudreau

Buffalo, meanwhile, celebrated as though it had won a playoff
game, which in a way, it had. The Sabres are in a mad dash to
try to reach the postseason. They are 10th in the Eastern
Conference, four points behind the eighth-place New York
Rangers. Plus, the Sabres started a stretch run in which
they’ll play six games in nine days, including matchups against
such top teams as Detroit, Boston and New Jersey.

“We needed this win,” Pominville said. “We found a way.”

Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Clarke MacArthur and Maxim Afinogenov
also scored for Buffalo, and Tim Connolly had three assists.
Ovechkin raised his NHL-leading goal total to 55 and Alexander
Semin netted his 30th for Washington.

Unlike last season – when they were at the bottom of the league
standings in late November – the Capitals built a big early lead
in the division and clinched with four games to spare.

Asked before the game how much time he’d spent discussing the
possibility of locking up the division, Boudreau offered a
one-word answer: “None.”

Washington led, 1-0, then let Buffalo go up, 2-1, on goals 48
seconds apart. Then the Capitals went back in front with goals
nine seconds apart by Semin and Fedorov.

After Buffalo tied the game, Fedorov’s second goal put
Washington ahead again, only to have Afinogenov make it 4-all
with nine minutes left in regulation. And then came Fedorov’s
miscue in overtime.

“If you battle that hard, you’re going to get rewarded,” Sabres
coach Lindy Ruff said.